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Overlooked stories from Trump’s first 100 hours

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WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 02:  Washington Post National political correspondent James Hohmann  photographed at the Washington Post  in Washington, DC, on June 02, 2015.   (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 02:
Washington Post National political correspondent James Hohmann photographed at the Washington Post in Washington, DC, on June 02, 2015.
(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

By James Hohman

The Washington Post

Donald Trump is quadrupling down on his lie that millions of ballots were illegally cast in the November election. Wednesday morning he ensured that the mainstream media will spend another day focused on this issue by calling for an investigation:

“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and…. even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”

That the president of the United States is challenging, with no credible evidence, the integrity of an election he won is extraordinarily reckless.

As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz explains this morning, “There is no benign explanation . . . It is either a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in the democratic process, an exhortation to those who favor new restrictions on access to the ballot box or the worrisome trait of someone with immense power willing to make wild statements without any credible evidence. By repeating as president what he had said as a candidate, for whatever purpose, Trump is now striking at the foundation of a democratic society. This is yet another example of Trump being willing to cast doubt on information, individuals or institutions that he believes threaten his legitimacy, challenge his authority or question his actions . . . This is not a debate about the size of the crowd at last week’s presidential inauguration. That is a piddling controversy compared to his claim that the election system overseen by the states is somehow riddled with fraud. Trump prefers his own reality, even if that damages the very system of government atop which he now sits.”

— While Trump’s claims of voter fraud are certainly newsworthy, they are also a distraction from an aggressive effort by this new White House to quickly transform the government and dramatically change the direction of public policy in ways will directly impact tens of millions of Americans.

As John Mitchell famously said when he became Richard Nixon’s attorney general, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

That maxim is truer now more than ever.

We’ve all been drinking from a firehouse since noon last Friday. To help you not lose track, here are several moves by Team Trump that would lead the news in any ordinary time but have gotten relatively little public attention:

1. MOVING TO LIFT THE BAN ON CIA BLACK SITES

“The Trump administration is preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the Central Intelligence Agency to reopen overseas ‘black site’ prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Obama shut them down,” the New York Times’s Charlie Savage reports. “President Trump’s three-page draft order, titled ‘Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants’ . . . would also undo many of the other restrictions on handling detainees that Mr. Obama put in place in response to policies of the Bush administration. If Mr. Trump signs the draft order, he would also revoke Mr. Obama’s directive to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all wartime detainees in American custody -another step toward reopening secret prisons outside of the normal wartime rules established by the Geneva Conventions. . .

“The draft order does not direct any immediate reopening of C.I.A. prisons or revival of torture tactics, which are now barred by statute,” Charlie notes. “But it sets up high-level policy reviews to make further recommendations in both areas to Mr. Trump, who vowed during the campaign to bring back waterboarding and a ‘hell of a lot worse’ – not only because ‘torture works,’ but because even ‘if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.'”

2. MUZZLING AGENCIES:

“Trump administration officials instructed employees at multiple agencies in recent days to cease communicating with the public through news releases, official social media accounts and correspondence, raising concerns that federal employees will be able to convey only information that supports the new president’s agenda,” Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “The Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Agriculture and Interior departments now have formal policies restricting what they should convey to the public about their work. . . . Many new administrations – including former president Barack Obama’s – have moved quickly to take control of the U.S. government’s public relations machinery and centralize decision-making upon taking office. But the sweeping nature of some of the new controls is unusual.”

At the EPA, communications staff received a memo instructing them that “no social media will be going out” and “a digital strategist will be coming on board” to oversee it. It added, “Incoming media requests will carefully screened.”

The Interior Department reactivated its official Twitter accounts after an abrupt shutdown that followed the National Park Service account retweeting two items viewed as unsympathetic to the new president. One referred to the size of the inauguration crowd on the Mall, while another addressed policies that were excised from the White House website after Trump’s swearing in.

The National Institutes of Health issued an email to its Institute and Center directors informing them they should not communicate on public forums and with public officials on new or pending regulation, policy or guidance that is under review.

At the Agriculture Department, a slew of officials received a memo instructing them to clear any media communications with the secretary’s office. Employees of the agency’s scientific arm, the Agriculture Research Service, were ordered in a separate memo to cease publication of “outward facing” documents and news releases. (The Washington Post’s Jose A. DelReal)

3. AN ASSAULT ON CLIMATE SCIENCE:

It’s not surprising that Trump followed through on promises to issue executive orders to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, but the administration is making a much harder play below the radar to eviscerate Obama’s environmental legacy.

They’ve instructed EPA officials to freeze all grants and contracts, a move that could affect everything from state-led climate research to localized efforts to improve air and water quality to environmental justice projects aimed at helping poor communities. “Each year the EPA awards more than $4 billion in funding for grants and other assistance agreements. For now, it appears, that funding is on hold, casting a cloud of uncertainty over one of the agency’s core functions, as well as over the scientists, state and local officials, universities and Native American tribes that often benefit from the grants,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report.

Last Friday, the Trump team deleted any reference to global warming on the White House web site. Now they’re going much farther. “The White House has ordered the EPA to remove the climate change page from its own website, which contains links to scientific global warming research and detailed data on emissions,” Reuters reports. The page could go dark as early as today. “If the website goes dark, years of work we have done on climate change will disappear,” one EPA staffer said, adding that some employees were scrambling overnight to download the information on personal devices so it cannot be deleted.

With little warning and no explanation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled a major climate change conference that had been scheduled for next month in Atlanta. “The Climate and Health Summit, which had been in the works for months, was intended as a chance for public health officials around the country to learn more about the mounting evidence of the risks to human health posed by the changing climate,” Brady notes.

The new president even hinted Tuesday that he’ll soon try to roll back fuel economy standards. He told CEOs of the largest automakers during a meeting Tuesday that environmental regulations are “out of control” and said he will curtail the “unnecessary” ones to encourage more manufacturing in the U.S.

Several scientists are now trying to organize another march on Washington, akin to last weekend’s women’s march, to raise awareness about what they see as Trump’s hostility to science.

4. BLOCKING REGULATIONS, INCLUDING ONE TO PREVENT PLANE CRASHES:

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued an order on Friday night to freeze all regulations that haven’t yet been formally published in the Federal Register. Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that at least 62 new regs have already been withdrawn, and the number could go far higher: “Some of the matters are weighty, like planned cancellation of sanctions against Burma (now on hold) or rules to give military spouses preferences in federal hiring. Some have already drawn public attention, like a delay in new rules about mistreatment of horses. Other actions suspended by the White House move seem less than earth-shattering, like the planned campground fee for public land in Richland County, North Dakota. However, at least a few of the halts seem troubling, like the withdrawal of a rule about inspecting aircraft fuselages for cracks.” The Department of Housing and Urban Development also pulled new rules to streamline income tests for federally-subsidized housing.

5. KEEPING THE DOOR OPEN TO ENTITLEMENT CUTS:

Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., defended his support of cuts to popular entitlement programs that Trump vowed to keep intact during the campaign. From The Post’s Ylan Q. Mui: “In appearances before the Senate budget and homeland security committees . . . Mulvaney presented himself as a ‘straight shooter’ and said he would continue to warn about the growing costs of Social Security and Medicare. .. ‘My job . . . is to be completely and brutally honest with him,’ he said. . . . Mulvaney said he remains in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security to 70 but emphasized that he would not reduce benefits for current recipients. He also reiterated his support for means-testing to qualify for Medicare.”

6. DECLINING TO COMMIT THAT CONSUMERS WILL BE BETTER OFF UNDER OBAMACARE REPLACEMENT:

Trump’s choice for health secretary repeatedly refused during his own testy confirmation hearing to promise that no Americans will be worse off under Trump’s executive order to ease provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats targeted most of their questioning on the direction that Tom Price, if confirmed, would try to take the health-care system. Price demurred repeatedly. For instance, he sidestepped a series of questions about the effects of the sweeping order Trump issued just hours after his swearing-in that directed agencies to lift or soften federal rules implementing aspects of the ACA. Price declined to commit that no one would be harmed, that no one would lose insurance coverage or that the regulations would be rewritten only after a plan exists to replace the 2010 health-care law.

Price said one way to cover people with pre-existing conditions under an Obamacare replacement would be to push them into high-risk pools, in which people with high medical costs are pooled together to avoid having their expenses drive up premiums for healthier consumers. “That hasn’t worked well in the past, providing costly coverage to limited numbers of people,” the Associated Press notes.

The Georgia congressman also kept the door wide open to turning Medicaid into a block grant, something he’s supported as chairman of the House Budget Committee. “In one particularly heated exchange with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, Price was asked whether turning Medicaid into a block grant program would mean fewer people would be eligible in the future,” CNN notes. “The decades-old entitlement program extends health coverage to low-income Americans, and Menendez noted that as an entitlement program, anyone who meets the criteria currently has the right to be covered. ‘When you move to a block grant, do you still have the right?’ Menendez asked. ‘No, I think it would be determined by how that was set up,’ Price said. Price’s apparent acknowledgement that some low-income Americans may not be covered if Republicans move Medicaid over to a block grant system would mark a radical shift in the purpose that the program is supposed to serve.”

7. RETAINING COMEY:

Hillary Clinton believes very strongly that FBI director James Comey cost her the election with his two announcements during the run-up to Nov. 8, and she’s angry that he did not publicly discuss evidence of Russian interference on behalf of Trump. Comey’s decisions to discuss the Clinton probe publicly are currently being investigated by the Justice Department inspector general. At a White House reception on Sunday, Trump literally embraced Comey. “He’s become more famous than me,” the president said.

Then the news broke Tuesday that Trump has asked Comey to stay on. Normally, this would not be surprising because he’s only four years into a 10-year term. But the president had said previously that he would not decide whether he should stay on until they had a private meeting.

And this is all playing out against a very awkward backdrop: Comey briefed Trump last month on the dossier that alleged that Moscow had gathered compromising financial, political and personal material about him. “The ensuing conversation came with seemingly unavoidable conflicts,” Matt Zapotosky, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller note. “It is not clear whether Comey told Trump that the FBI had or was still pursuing allegations made in the dossier, but doing so would have involved telling an incoming president with significant power over the FBI that his associates were potential investigative targets.”

His greatest looming challenge will be presiding over ongoing investigations whose dimensions and direction are unclear. “Those alleged entanglements continue to expand,” The Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller write. “U.S. officials said this week that the FBI has scrutinized communications between Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. . . . U.S. officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said they have seen no evidence of wrongdoing. . . . The FBI for several months has been investigating allegations that Trump associates or acquaintances, including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, might have had improper contact with Russian officials or intermediaries, U.S. officials said. The bureau is also still examining allegations in the dossier that Comey discussed with Trump in New York last month, according to a U.S. official.”

8. SESSIONS REFUSING TO RECUSE HIMSELF:

“Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions won’t commit to recusing himself from potential Justice Department investigations into controversies involving Trump – from Russia to business conflicts of interest – despite his vigorous campaigning on behalf of Trump during the 2016 election season,” Politico’s Seung Min Kim reports. “In written responses to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said repeatedly that he is ‘not aware of a basis to recuse myself’ from issues surrounding Trump such as potential violations of the Emoluments Clause, a constitutional ban on officials accepting payments from foreign governments. That differs from Sessions’ vow to recuse himself from any ongoing issues involving the federal probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server. Sessions said during his confirmation hearing that he would step aside from any such investigations because his political rhetoric against Clinton during the campaign ‘could place my objectivity in question.”

The Post’s Editorial Board says the Senate should not confirm Sessions until he agrees to such a recusal: “Mr. Trump has tapped Rod J. Rosenstein, a respected career prosecutor, to be deputy attorney general. Mr. Sessions should have no qualms about entrusting him with these politically vexing issues. It would raise confidence in his Justice Department and save him plenty of headaches.”

Another reason this matters: Sessions could wind up being the point man on the investigation into voter fraud that Trump promised on Twitter this morning.As Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horwitz note, “Sessions has in the past asserted that voter fraud exists, though he has declined to endorse Trump’s assertion that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election. ‘I don’t know what the president-elect meant or was thinking when he made that comment or what facts he may have had to justify his statement,’ Sessions said at his confirmation hearing earlier this month, asked point blank by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) whether he agreed with Trump. ‘I would just say that every election needs to be managed closely and we need to ensure that there is integrity in it. And I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles.’ . . .

“President-day civil liberties advocates fear Session’s and Trump’s views on voter fraud could serve as a basis for them to support voter ID laws that disenfranchise poor or minority voters, such as the one in North Carolina that was overturned by the Supreme Court last summer. Studies have shown in-person voter fraud, which the laws are designed to prevent, is exceptionally rare. They are also concerned that Sessions hailed as ‘good news, I think, for the South’ a Supreme Court decision that gutted a critical section of the Voting Rights Act. . . . One of Sessions’s early tests will be how – if he is confirmed – his Justice Department handles a voter ID law in Texas considered one of the strictest in the country.”

9. CURTAILING ABORTION:

Flanked by a group in the Oval Office that consisted entirely of men, Trump reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy. The Reagan-era policy bans American assistance to organizations that offer abortion services, including counseling and referrals.

Poor women in sub-Saharan Africa stand to be the biggest losers from Trump’s order, our Kevin Sieff reports from Nairobi: “In practice, experts say, that policy will freeze millions of dollars in funding that has gone to critical health treatment, including HIV testing and neonatal care. The United States does not fund any abortion services overseas, but many health groups receive American assistance to provide other women’s services, while using different funding sources to provide abortion counseling and procedures. Now, those organizations will have to stop providing abortion services if they want to continue to receive U.S. aid for their other programs. The policy is known as the ‘global gag rule’ because it even restricts references to abortion in counseling sessions. . .

“In Kenya, public health experts raised immediate concerns about the new policy.Women here often resort to dangerous methods to end their pregnancies, including drinking battery acid and using wire coat hangers. In parts of rural Kenya, young women have hired local healers to stomp on their stomachs until the pregnancy is deemed over. ‘Trump’s policy means even fewer services will be offered,’ said Chimaraoke Izugbara, a researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in Nairobi. ‘Some women will not be reached, and providers may not be available to offer services. I think we are headed to a major disaster.’ Nearly 8,000 women in Kenya die every year from complications caused by pregnancy and childbirth. At least a fifth of those deaths are caused by self-induced abortions, according to Izugbara.”

Then, Tuesday, House Republicans passed a bill that would prevent the District of Columbia from using local tax dollars to subsidize abortion services for low-income women.Jenna Portnoy and Aaron C. Davis report: “Although the Senate has never passed the bill, the vote was an ominous sign that the District could become an afterthought as Congress considers targeting laws regulating guns, assisted suicide and marijuana in the nation’s capital. The stakes are particularly high for the District this year, as it can no longer rely on a Democratic presidential veto.”

10. RENEGING ON PROMISES OF TRANSPARENCY

During the presidential campaign, Trump said repeatedly that he could not release his returns because he is undergoing an audit and that he would do so once that process is complete. The audit has always been a flimsy excuse. Nothing is stopping him from releasing the returns any way, and he could release previous years not under audit.

Regardless, now that he’s in the Oval Office and will soon get to appoint one of his own people to run the IRS, Trump’s team is changing course.

“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns,” Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” She said the issue was settled in the election. “People didn’t care,” she said. “They voted for him.”

The next day she claimed that this is consistent with what was said during the campaign, but it is not. A majority of Americans in every poll also still want the president to release his returns, just as they did before the election.

11. TAKING THE OIL

Speaking in front of the honor wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Trump said Saturday that the U.S. should have kept the oil after the liberation of Iraq. “To the victor belong the spoils,” he said. “So we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe you’ll have another chance.”

No one knows how seriously to take Trump’s threat to seize Iraq’s oil: “The recycled campaign comment is raising concerns about Trump’s understanding of the delicate Middle East politics involved in the U.S.-led effort against extremist groups,” the AP reports in a story that just moved over the wire. “The statement ignores the precedent of hundreds of years of American history . . . Taking the oil would also require a permanent U.S. occupation, or at least until Iraq’s 140 billion barrels of crude run out, and a large presence of American soldiers to guard sometimes isolated oil fields and infrastructure. Such a mission would be highly unpopular with Iraqis, whose hearts and minds the U.S. is still try to win to defeat groups such as IS and al-Qaida.”

Serious Republicans like Bob Gates and John McCain chortle at the idea.

Rather than try to walk it back, however, Sean Spicer defended Trump’s “take the oil” line during his briefing on Monday. “He wants to be sure America is getting something out of it for the commitment and sacrifice it is making,” the press secretary said.

 James Hohmann is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

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